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TBA 2010: Young Jean Lee on The Shipment

A conversation with playwright Young Jean Lee about the filmed version of her controversial stage play.

By Claudia La Rocco September 17, 2010

Image from The Shipment , which was performed last year at TBA09.

Last year, TBAers got to see Young Jean Lee’s play The Shipment. This year, you all get to see it again; on the screen, not the stage, courtesy of

Lee’s bracing, elegant work takes a hard look at race relations, with plenty of uncomfortable moments for its audience. It’s liveness is an essential component: here we all are, sitting in a theater together, for once staring straight at the elephant in the room.

What will it mean for a work like this to transfer to the screen? Lee (always a thoughtful interviewee), was kind enough to chat about it.

CLR: For me, such a part of watching The Shipment was watching the audience, and keeping tabs on how my responses did and didn’t line up with other people’s, especially across racial and gender lines. And you talked about this as well, if I remember, particularly how upsetting it could be for you at times. The liveness of the work seems essential to this, and so I’d be curious to hear whether you feel The Shipment is or isn’t changed by video, and what it’s like for you to watch a recording vs. the live work.

YJL: I think the audience is more anonymous in the darkness of a movie theater and therefore less uncomfortable (also they don’t have live actors staring directly at them). But I think the discomfort aspect will always be there as long as there is any racial diversity in the audience at all. I think people will still be uncertain whether they “should” be laughing or not, and be aware of the responses of the people around them. A public viewing in a movie theater is definitely much closer to the “live” experience than watching it alone at home on your computer.

CLR: Did you adapt the production for the screen in any way?

YJL: No. But we worked with the editors to try to give it the feel of watching something in a theater, as opposed to watching a film or sitcom. I asked them to cut way down on the close-ups.

CLR: I’m told that Portland audiences were really moved by the work last year; what do you remember from those performances?

YJL: Portland was one of the best audiences we’ve ever had. People were dying to ask those questions about race, to be challenged in that way. Everyone was weirdly grateful. They kept coming up to us and saying, “Thank you for making me feel so fucked-up.” They were also just a really fun and enthusiastic audience—those people LOVE the arts, it’s crazy. It’s almost like they’re not American.

CLR: Along those same lines, I’d be curious to hear what the experience of touring this work has been for you, and to what extent you’ve shaped and edited it as you and the actors have spent more time with it. Are there things now about the recording you wish you could change?

YJL: The actors get better with every show. I’m adamant that they not get bored, so they’re always doing crazy things to surprise each other onstage. Sometimes I get scolded by my production team. They’re like, “The actors are getting too out of control!” There’s an element of danger to it. Also we frequently have to replace actors for any given tour, so the addition of a new person in the room changes everything and people really have to stay on their toes. The only adjustment we made to the text was adding a rant about Europeans after our first European tour when people kept telling us, “It is strange that Americans still have these race problems. We do not have such problems here in Europe.”

CLR: One gentleman told me that the opening monologue made specific reference to Portland’s racial history; is this so, and if so how did you reach that decision to adapt the piece specifically for its setting?

YJL: He must have seen the show in Europe—we only do that in venues outside of the U.S. Although the standup comedian does reference local sports teams and stuff wherever we go, since that’s a typical standup trope.

For more information on TBA events, visit PICA. A more comprehensive list of upcoming events can be found at our Arts & Entertainment Calendar.

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